By Jordan Henderson, Intern with the Council's Global Food and Agriculture Program
A digger unloads discarded vegetables into a pile of vegetable residue at the Albahida vegetable recycling plant in Nijar, in the southern Spanish region of Almeria. REUTERS/Francisco Bonilla
The forgotten milk carton at the back of the fridge, an unopened and now moldy loaf of bread, leftover Thanksgiving stuffing from grandma that no one wanted to eat: these are all symptoms of an increasingly dangerous problem among the developed world’s food systems today. Its name is food waste. It can happen at both the producer and consumer level, and solving each level would represent enormous steps towards a more sustainable world. The problem is that food waste is not just a singular issue—it is the culmination of its subsidiary issues makes food waste so dangerous.
Food waste threatens our ecological future and worsens climate change. In total, food loss would amount to the third largest emitter of greenhouse gases if it was a sovereign nation. Discarded food represents about 20 percent of the contents of US landfills and by weight, it is the most abundant type of waste. Even though food should be able to break down naturally, our landfill design stops decomposition from ever occurring. The material gets buried among other trash and is not given access to enough oxygen to break down properly. This leads to a release of a combination of methane, carbon dioxide, and other harmful particles that can wreak havoc on the earth’s natural heat regulation process.
One way developed countries can assist in the reduction of greenhouse gases coming from wasted food would be to implement biogas capture systems within landfills. This would allow for the capture of methane for the use of electricity production. Methane combusts much cleaner that alternative fossil fuels and thus would address emissions in multiple ways. Germany is one of the global leaders in biogas capturing. Every year, the energy generated from the 9,000 biogas facilities in Germany prevent 19 million tons of CO2 from entering the atmosphere.
Of course, reducing the amount of waste that ends up in landfills would be preferable to managing the problems that are already at hand. There exists a trend in the agriculture industry to avoid “ugly” food because stores will not sell malformed produce. Consumers will attribute physical deformity to something wrong with the food and therefore not purchase it. The EU declared 2014 the European Year against Food Waste. This led many retailers throughout the EU to adopt ugly food programs. As some of the largest supermarkets in the region realize the role that food waste plays in their economic and environmental bottom line, they are jumping on board to sell ugly produce. Great Britain’s largest supermarket has even called for large-scale educational campaigns to show consumers that they must cast away their negative stigmas around ugly foods.
Food waste is not just a detriment because of its after-effects, it also represents waste in production capital used to grow the food. This represents what could be one of the most far-reaching problems associated with food loss. Land use, water, farm labor, and transportation are all factors required before food can end up on the shelves of a grocery store. When even a single item is wasted so too are all the corresponding inputs that went into making that item.
Take the state of California for example. California produces more food than any state in the US. Because of this, the state requires enormous amounts of resources to continue to produce. During California’s most recent drought, the state’s agricultural industry had to adapt to ensure its economic well-being. The industry implemented drip irrigation and switched to higher value crops. Now, frame the drought around the notion of food waste. Every thrown away or wasted item produced in California during their drought is also a waste of scarce and therefore very valuable resources.
Outside of market-based solutions, political action is important to solving food waste. This includes standardizing food labeling and compulsory composting at a municipal level. Standardizing food labeling would result in the highest benefit to society, both financially and in terms of saving water. It is estimated that 192 billion gallons of water could be saved just by implementing a common food labeling system. By doing so, corporations would reduce the confusion consumers have related to an items freshness. This would lead to less fresh food being thrown away and diverted to a landfill. Municipal composting represents the highest impact on waste diversion and emission reduction. Implementing centralized composting would result in 5 million tons of food waste composted instead of being diverted to landfills. Cities would then be able to sell this compost to homeowners to use in their own gardens to close the food loop. Composting would also result in a reduction of 2.6 million tons of greenhouse gas in the atmosphere.
There are already success stories surrounding city-wide composting. In 2009, San Francisco, California passed a compulsory composting ordinance with the goal of becoming waste-free by 2020. Currently, the city is diverting around 80 percent of all its waste away from landfills. Seattle, Washington has implemented a similar program as well. Seattle takes their waste diversion practice a step forward by publicly shaming residents who do not compost. The city accomplishes this by marking the offender’s trash bins with a bright red tag for all to see. A study completed in Surrey, England found that a similar practice conducted there increased composting by 20 percent over a 30 week period. Further, when the study concluded, composting rates continued to rise, showing a measurable long-term impact on food disposal.
We are doing more than just throwing away food. We are throwing away hard work, natural resources, and billions of dollars: $680 billion to be exact. The only barrier in the way of solving food loss and food waste in the developed world is the willingness to do so. Logical steps forward exist and are yearning for the stroke of a pen that puts them into action. Feeding 9 billion people by 2050 is no small task. At our current rate, food loss will only continue to grow, ultimately increasing both the environmental and the economic strain on the entire food system. It will take common-sense action combined with a willingness among all citizens to usher the developed world into a more sustainable and waste-free world.